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Sumpter Valley Gold Dredge

Sumpter, OR

For a few brief years the town of Sumpter was at the center of the gold rush in Oregon. Like so many other boom towns in the late 1800s, the promise of gold drew in thousands of residents before another strike was discovered and they moved on to the next, more promising destination. A fire that destroyed much of the town in 1917 hastened their departure.

Today Sumpter stays afloat on tourism. The town’s mining history is on display here. At the center is the Sumpter Valley Dredge, a mining barge that’s been restored to pristine condition. The dredge has a long history, and its own ghost legend.

The Powder River is what drew many of the miners to Sumpter Valley. Prospectors found gold here, although extracting it from the riverbanks was another matter. Twenty miles away at the Ah Hee Diggins site near Granite Creek, hundreds of Chinese laborers hauled away rocks and processed ore by hand. This was exhausting, backbreaking labor for very little pay, and white miners generally did not consider it worth the trouble.

In Sumpter, industrial machinery was built to do the job instead.

The Sumpter Valley Dredge is a floating barge, built to be anchored in shallow water while systematically working away at the riverbanks. At the front is a chainsaw-like conveyer with 72 ore buckets weighing one ton each. These buckets would tear through rock and soil, hauling it aboard to be processed while at the same time digging a new river channel for the dredge to move forward.

Ecology wasn’t a concern. Although the wetlands of Sumpter Valley have partially recovered, the dredge left scars on the earth that will remain visible for thousands of years.

After sitting unused for decades, the dredge was restored in 1995. Today it’s anchored near the center of town. Oregon State Parks offers tours and gold panning demonstrations, and at certain times of the year visitors can watch the Sumpter Valley Railroad’s steam engine make a run through town.

Towns like Sumpter are guaranteed to have a ghost story or two. The Sumpter Valley Dredge is known for “Joe Bush,” a tale that’s been featured in the Skeleton Creek book series and paranormal TV show Ghost Mine. But even the most eager ghost hunters will admit it’s tough to believe. There’s no record of anyone named Joe Bush who worked on the dredge, much less died there.

Sumpter’s history is preserved in time, but things are different in the hills outside of town. Out here history is slowly being lost to time and the elements.

On a recent trip to the area I followed a 1900s historical map, searching for traces of former mining operations. I walked along old rail lines, finding mine entrances and what’s left of wooden structures. Many of them have deteriorated to the point where they’re barely identifiable, if there’s anything left at all.

The Sumpter Valley Dredge is one of three mining dredges that once operated in the area. The remains of the second one is a short distance down the road next to a railway museum, but the third is harder to find.

I spent an evening studying satellite photos, and eventually found what I was sure had to be the dredge. A few miles outside of town I parked on a forest service road, crossed the river by foot and saw it with my own eyes.

If I didn’t know what I was looking for it would have been tough to imagine it resembling the restored dredge in Sumpter. The machinery and most of the structure were all removed, either scrapped or re-used when the Sumpter Valley Dredge was built. The frame of the hull is really all that’s left, and even that’s slowly rotting away, but the shape of it is unmistakable.

There’s a certain sense of mystery and untold stories from what remains here of the dredge. In another generation or two even that will be gone. If there are any ghosts from Sumpter’s mining past still haunting this area, I think this is the dredge they’d prefer.

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